BOSTON — EVERYONE knew the hooded visage of the Unabomber before suspect Theodore Kaczynski was captured. But who is Mir Aimal Kansi? Or William Harden?
The Unabomber may have been the FBI's most vexing suspect, but unlike Mr. Kansi, a Pakistani sought for the shooting of five people outside CIA headquarters in 1993, he was never the hottest fugitive on the bureau's "Ten Most Wanted" list. And only if Mr. Kaczynski escapes his cell will he earn a spot next to William Harden, a pedophile described by US marshals as the most wanted person on their "Top 15" list of fugitives.
As FBI and other Justice Department agents revel in the capture of a suspect sought in an epic 18-year manhunt, they say the need remains high for public help in identifying elusive fugitives who are less well known, but who are as much if not more of a threat than the Unabomber was. The current FBI list of eight most-wanted fugitives (another will be added next week) includes Donald Eugene Webb, a former butcher and car and jewelry salesman sought for murder who made the list in 1981, and two Libyans sought in connection with the Pan Am 103 bombing in 1988.
As with the Unabom case, public exposure is a powerful weapon in the crime fight against what the bureau once termed its "toughest guys." Suspects are "most wanted" based on a calculation of potential for further heinous crimes, as well as the fact that information and leads about the fugitives have dried up.
"These are people you haven't heard of," says FBI official Rex Tomb. "We are hoping for the call where someone says, 'I saw that guy in the Safeway.' "
About 25 percent of most-wanted fugitives are nabbed as a result of citizen leads. Popular TV shows have led to 11 arrests of FBI "Top 10" fugitives since 1988. This Jan. 6, "America's Most Wanted" featured Rickey Allen Bright, a convicted child-rapist who was on parole when he allegedly repeated his offense in North Carolina. He was caught Jan. 7 in Nashville after a viewer called in.
New techniques are also under way: FBI and Justice Department Web sites on the Internet put the old US Postal Service mug shots into cyberspace. Federal agents target specialized local, ethnic, and trade journals with "wanted" ads. They are also experimenting with wanted ads in major national daily newspapers.
Last month, a Phoenix agent ran out of leads in tracking a white-collar fugitive on a $2 million-plus bad-check spree. The bureau paid $3,000 to run an ad in the USA Today weekend edition of March 8. On March 11, on the basis of a tip brought via the ad, Scott Stefan Atkins was arrested in Beverly Hills, Calif.
"It went better than anyone hoped for," says FBI spokeswoman Joyce Riggs. "We are definitely looking into the possibility of similar approaches."
The US Marshals Service (USMS), the oldest federal fugitive hunters (dating from 1789 and made famous during the American-frontier era) tracks escapees from federal or military prisons or fugitives who have jumped bail or are wanted on Drug Enforcement Administration charges. USMS is experimenting with similar public exposure techniques. Two years ago, marshals sought Thomas Billman, responsible for stealing more than $20 million from a Maryland savings and loan. Suspecting that Mr. Billman was in Europe, USMS ran an ad in the International Herald Tribune. A patron at a Parisian sandwich shop frequented by expatriates recognized Billman as a customer; the French police took him into custody.
In the past two years, the FBI has, for the first time, "internationalized" its list. Three of the eight most wanted are from abroad. FBI officials are fairly tight-lipped about the number or quality of leads from citizens of other countries. "We aren't sure how well it is working," says Mr. Tomb.
Critics say the move to internationalize has a whiff of domestic grandstanding about it. More immediately dangerous individuals are on America's streets, they say, than are committing what appear to be targeted political acts of retribution. The two Libyans wanted in the Pan Am case, for example, were put on the list during the push for anti-terrorism legislation in March 1995. The crime took place seven years prior.
Marshals work with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and with state and local police. They apprehend about 16,000 fugitives a year, more than are caught by all other US agencies combined. In the late '80s, the marshals took on international drug traffickers, which increased their workload tenfold, tracking fugitives who are often "the worst of the worst," says USMS spokesman Bill Dempsey.
Marshals are best known for the Christopher Boyce case in the 1980s. Mr. Boyce spied for the Russians, then escaped from Lompoc federal prison in California. His recapture by federal marshals after 18 months of sleuthing is related in Robert Lindsey's book "The Flight of the Falcon."
As in FBI cases, federal agents say on the record that all most-wanted cases are equal. But some take on a "more equal than others" status. Currently, William Harden is getting special USMS attention, says senior deputy Arthur Roderick. Harden escaped a 20-year South Carolina jail sentence for sexual assaults against children. Described as an "intelligent man," Harden is believed to be finding his targets via the Internet. "We want this guy because he goes after emotionally unstable and vulnerable kids," Mr. Roderick says.
The oldest marshals' case, one dating to Nov. 2, 1988, is Peter Paul Zink. Mr. Zink is wanted in Wisconsin for murder and narcotics charges and for hiring an assassin to kill a federal witness against him.
Finding a most-wanted suspect is highly motivating even for longtime agents, FBI officials say. "It's like being on the team that wins the World Series," says Tomb, noting that the agent who arrested Mr. Bright in Nashville in January called Tomb at 1 a.m. to relay the news.